American tragedy receives a lyrical touch

The Republican
Clifton J. Noble, Jr.
March 29, 2007

President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and the surrounding events are seen through the prism of musical drama in the world premiere of Our American Cousin, a new opera by Amherst College composer Eric Sawyer and librettist John Shoptaw.

The concert performance will take place on Saturday evening in Buckley Recital Hall on the Amherst College campus. Gil Rose will conduct the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, a cast of nine fine young principal singers, and chorus in the three-act depiction of that fateful night at Ford’s Theater in Washington D.C., when John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln during a performance of Tom Taylor’s Broadway comedy about an awkward American introduced to his aristocratic English relatives.

“The idea was born a long time ago,” Sawyer said recently. “John and I were neighbors in Somerville, Mass., around 1990, and were talking about an opera and tossing ideas around. It was then that we got the play, Our American Cousin, and read through it and found all these interesting resonances between the play and the historical moment.”

Their opera examines myth and history both from the perspective of the actors who presented Our American Cousin for the president and his wife, and from that of Abraham and Mary Lincoln as they watched the play and the audience from their box. The fresh national wounds inflicted by the Civil War and relationship between art and peace form a backdrop for the human drama that unfolds during the course of this play-within-a-play.

“We have two narratives colliding,” Sawyer explained. “There’s the comedy Our American Cousin and then there’s the script that John Wilkes Booth has written for himself that’s going to outdo all of his previous Shakespearean acting.

“What everybody will know going into this is that Lincoln is going to be shot. Our challenge is to do what the comedy was supposed to do on that night it was seen, what people went to it for, to make them forget their cares and the bleak realities that surrounded them.”

The opera’s three acts detail the backstage events prior to the presentation of Cousin, the play itself, and the assassination and its aftermath.

Their approach furnished Sawyer and Shoptaw with a number of intriguing characters to inhabit and personalize their story. Anglo-American melodramatic actress and theater manager Laura Keene (sung by soprano Janna Baty) wielded the power to terrify her actors and mesmerize her audience. Actor Harry Hawk (tenor Alan Schneider) played the titular “cousin,” Asa. Actor Jack Matthews (baritone Aaron Engebreth) carries a sealed letter (every opera worth its salt hinges on a weighty letter) from Booth (baritone Tom O’Toole) with instructions to deliver it the following day to a Washington newspaper.

Lincoln (baritone Donald Wilkinson, who created the role of the Servant in the opera, Life Is A Dream by Pulitzer Prize-winning Amherst College professor Lewis Spratlan in 2000) is seen enjoying the light-hearted play, but also musing on his own role on the national stage and the “blue-gray smoke and ashes” lingering from the war. Mary Lincoln (soprano Angela Gooch) bridles a bit at Keene’s magnetic hold on the audience, including her husband, but shares a tender moment with the president as they plan for their future “now that this pestilent war is over.” Her horrific reaction to his murder gives the opera its “mad scene.”

Within the play, the opportunistic friend of the Dundreary family Mrs. Mountchessington (mezzo-soprano Janice Edwards) and her daughter, Augusta “Gussie” (soprano Hillarie O’Toole), vie with Keene-as-Mary Dundreary for the “cousin’s” affections (and fortune). Actor Ned Emerson (baritone Drew Poling) and Dr. Leale (baritone Dan Kamalic) round out the principal cast members.

The chorus in the opera is divided into various constituencies that might have been in attendance at Ford’s Theater, among them freedmen, wounded soldiers, nurses, and businessmen. These groups have their own stories to tell, suggesting a slice-of-life picture of the social makeup and mood. They join together at the opera’s conclusion for a meditative chorus, which, after a litany of Civil War battlefield names, begins the long healing process with the redemptive notion, “Already it runs together the shreds and ravellings might someday save us.”

Sawyer described his musical language as “lyrical extended tonality.” Period pieces (Ivesian castings of “Hail to the Chief” and choruses patterned on spirituals and marching songs) rub shoulders with set-piece arias including the Mark Twain-like “Possum aria” Asa sings to the Mountchessingtons in Act II and continuously flowing music-drama in the unfolding of the two-hour score. Shoptaw’s poetic text will be projected as supertitles during the performance.

A staged production of Sawyer’s and Shoptaw’s Our American Cousin is planned for the fall at the Academy of Music Theater in Northampton, an edifice similar in vintage and design to Ford’s theater which should provide the perfect set for the piece. Director Linda McInerney, who has provided the cast with some minimal but insightful blocking for this March concert performance, will help to bring the piece to further life on the Academy stage.

The Amherst College performance is free and public. Tickets are not required.

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